Book Excerpt: The Second Life of Bethany Sweet by Martine Lillycrop


The Second Life of Bethany Sweet is a fantasy novel about a girl who wakes up in a world she doesn’t belong to.

From Chapter 5:

I was too tired to get undressed, especially since I had no idea how I’d ever put the toga-thing I was wearing back on again if I took it off. A quick wash from a bowl of scented water, brush my teeth with a rag made specially for the purpose, and clamber into bed.

The bed wasn’t as comfortable as the one I’d left behind, back in the world I’d always known. It was harder for one thing. And lumpier. Sheets and a single, thin blanket had replaced the soft duvet I used to tuck round myself at night, making a Beth-sized pocket to snuggle into. I made a brief effort to form a pocket from the sheets, failed.

It didn’t matter.

The night was warm and humid. Plus, sheer relief at having a chance to rest was sending waves of bliss down my entire body. And, because of that, I got the feeling tomorrow would be excruciating. Muscles left unused for God knows how long up in that tower were already complaining about what I’d been doing with them lately. Plus, that saddle had put bruises in places I was already wishing didn’t exist. The cramp in my left calf, which I eased by lifting my toes and pressing my heel down, told me everything in my new body had been pushed to its limits.

I promised myself I’d make Jaren slow down tomorrow or even stop here for a day. So I could recover. Let the stiffness in my muscles fade.
Maybe I drifted off at that point. A bit of a surprise, given the scratchy blanket. Still, something woke me so sleep must have come, whether I’d wanted it to or not. I lay in the quiet for a while, grateful for the soft theotic light coming from the corridor outside. It helped remind me where I was, and also reassured me there was nothing lurking in my room I should worry about.

Then I heard it again. The sound that had woken me.

Something was warbling in the courtyard outside. Not an insect. Or a night bird. Nothing natural, in fact. And it was a sound so familiar that when I realised what it was I sat up in a rush. I looked round myself again, checking I wasn’t dreaming.

It was music, but nothing like the string and flute I’d been subjected to while eating dinner. This music was achingly familiar, but the jangling, polyphonic rendition made it sound childish and corny. I struggled to remember what the song was–a theme tune I’d liked, turned into a parody of itself. Then I remembered. And I realised just why the sound was so wrong here, in this world.

I craned my neck to see out of the window—to wherever it was coming from–but the sill was too high. I threw the sheets back, slid my sandals on and went to investigate.

To my surprise, no one was standing outside my room. I wondered what had happened to the guard Jaren had stationed there, then shrugged.
Who cares?

The rest of the grounds looked quiet, too, and were dimly lit by theotic lamps, which were fixed here and there to external walls. I dashed across the open space as the song played again, found myself in a narrow corridor which lay open to the night on both sides. Trailing vine leaves fluttered in the wind I created as I rushed past, anxious to get there before the song stopped playing. At the corridor’s far end was a flight of steps. The ring-tone was coming from the top. I climbed them, passed under an arch, and found a dark wooden door. Beyond it, the song still played. I hesitated for just a second, then tried the handle. The door opened silently.

The moon was visible through the unglazed window opposite and against the framed sky stood the silhouette of a tall, broad-shouldered man whose black hair hung sleekly around his shoulders. He turned to me with his hand outstretched and opened his fingers, revealing a glowing cell-phone. The song’s opening bars began again.

‘It’s for you,’ he said.

I crossed the room and took it from him, frowning in disbelief. I stared at the cheerfully jangling object for a second, then answered and pressed it to my ear. The voice I heard was cold and sepulchral.

Behold,’ it said. ‘The Flower Maiden’s Fate.’

I dropped the phone like it had bitten me and took a step back.

The man tilted his head, birdlike.

‘Got my message, then?’

He tapped a globe on the wall beside the window. Light lifted the atmosphere as it grew in strength, but I couldn’t forget that voice, or the memory of a dying soldier it brought with it.

Now he was no longer in silhouette, I could see the man’s features. Amber eyes with odd, star-shaped pupils and one streak of pure white falling from his forehead against the midnight black of his hair. A white flash?

Didn’t take a genius.

I backed further away, towards the door.

‘You’re Haasch!’

‘But fair.’ He grinned and I recoiled, horrified by the long fangs he bore instead of teeth.

Haasch moved so abruptly I flinched. In a second he was there, towering over me. I tried not to swallow, failed. With my head tilted back to look up at him, the action caused an audible gulp.

He didn’t seem to notice.

‘Aren’t you worried what they’re going to do to you?’ he asked. ‘You’re just going to accept it? Go along with everything they say?’

‘What? What do you want? Leave me alone!’

Haasch grunted. He stopped looming and turned away, returned to the window.

‘What I want is complicated.’ He glanced back. ‘Usually I just kill people. Same as that Maidgard scum you think so much of.’

‘That what scum?’

‘Your soldier friend. Like him, don’t you? Even though he’s delivering you to your death.’

My mouth popped open in outrage. ‘Don’t talk… That is such crap!’

Haasch plucked his lower lip.

‘Remember how that young soldier died today?’

I shuddered. ‘It was horrible. You’re horrible!’

Haasch raised his eyebrows, but nodded. ‘I know. I’m very bad news. But for ridding the world of such a low-life they should give me a medal or something. Do you know how he made that telescope? I saw it when I got inside his head. He took an infant, a baby girl–stole her from her cot while his comrades raped and murdered her mother–then forced live scorpinos down her throat. An infant! While the creatures ate her insides, he collected the theotics she surrendered and poured them into his telescope.’

I shook my head. ‘Liar!’

‘Occasionally,’ Haasch admitted. ‘I made him believe scorpinos were attacking him. It was meant as retribution. Clumsy, I imagine, by your standards. Justice isn’t my strong point, but I don’t like people who hurt children.

‘I’ve destroyed the telescope now. It’s not like I need it any more. There’s no more getting inside his head.’ He took a step closer. ‘Do you know how come I’m inside your head right now? How I can steal your thoughts, your memories? Your phone?’

‘You’re inside my head?’

I looked around in dismay. Was that possible? Then I realised. My muscles weren’t sore. They should be. They had been when I’d gone to bed. I blinked in disbelief as it dawned on me. Right now I was lying in bed, dreaming. Helpless. I tried to visualise my body, tried to return there, wake up, but as I spun round in panic, the door behind me slammed shut.

‘No,’ Haasch said. ‘You’ll stay here until I let you go.’

‘How…? I mean… What do you want?’

He didn’t answer.

I tried the door, tried grasping the handle–which was somehow slippery and wouldn’t turn. So I pounded on the door with the sides of my fists. I don’t know how long I spent thumping the dark, polished wood, shouting at the top of my lungs. No one came.

Behind me, Haasch just stood there.

When I’d exhausted myself to the point I couldn’t shout or pound any longer, I turned to face him. Pressed my back against the door.

‘They said they had spirit guards, things that could stop you.’

Haasch shrugged. ‘True. I shouldn’t be able to reach you, not with all the security here.’

‘Then how are you…?’ I realised I didn’t actually care. ‘Just get out of my head!’

The assassin grinned, making me shudder. ‘You’d prefer to meet face-to-face? I’d like that. I’ve some great ideas I’d like to try out on you.’

I glared at him. ‘Go to hell!’

‘That’s the spirit! Want to know how I’m inside you?’ He held up his hand. Between his fingers was an ashen twist of gossamer. ‘You left me an invitation. On the thorns, back at your sad, lonely spire. Nothing can stop me getting inside you while I have a lock of hair to find you with.’

Even if I hadn’t heard the soldiers discuss how Haasch had possessed Borin, I believed him. And I remembered the hair snagging on the thorns, wrenched from my scalp–the Flower Maiden’s scalp–by Salic back at the tower. Haasch must have found it there, taken it. Now he was using it to invade my mind.

‘Give it back!’ I tried to snatch it away from him, which made him laugh.

‘I’m not here, Beth. Remember? You’re in bed right now.’

He caught my wrist in a grip hard enough to make me cry out, slid an arm round my waist and jammed me close to him, chest-to-chest, like we were about to dance the tango.

‘Don’t trust Jaren Malik,’ he said.

I started to protest, but he continued.

‘Know what would be fun? Let’s screw with his head. We’ll call it retroactive karma. Retribution for what he’ll do to you in the future.’

His fingers released my wrist, reached up to caress my cheek. It was like a spell. His touch was champagne bubbles trickling over my skin. His other hand slid along my spine so every nerve in my body shivered with pleasure.

Haasch’s head dipped to kiss my throat and his tongue darted out, flickering. Sharp teeth caught the skin below my ear and tugged gently, exquisitely. I forgot everything else. Every cell I possessed at once ignited. Demanded him, needed him. I turned my head without thinking, sought his lips with mine. He pulled back.

Frustrated, I clutched his head between my hands, held him there, stood on tiptoe and forced him to meet my mouth with his. He paused. Then responded with such passion I almost yelped. He drew back for a moment then kissed me again, hard and painfully. The lips were gone without warning and soft pillows came up and hit me in the back.

‘What have you done?’ Jaren pushed himself away from me.

I opened my eyes, horrified.

‘Where…’ I was back in my room and Jaren was leaning over me. It wasn’t Haasch I’d been kissing at all! My cheeks flushed hotly. I pulled the blanket up to my chin. ‘What are you doing here?’

Jaren’s face was suffused with so many emotions I couldn’t read any of them. He was still standing over me, one arm braced on the pillow beside my head.

‘You were dreaming,’ he said, ‘Crying out in your sleep. I was trying to wake you.’

He darted forward again and pressed his mouth on mine, devouring it hungrily, angrily.

When he pulled away he shook his head. ‘You’ve doomed me, girl. My life’s over.’

Read the whole story – The Second Life of Bethany Sweet is available on Amazon in paperback or on kindle.  

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